Joachim Murat, Napoleon's saber

Joachim Murat, Napoleon's saber

Murat is considered one of the bravest and arguably the most extravagant of Napoleon's Marshals. Born the son of an innkeeper, he became king and brother-in-law of an emperor after having distinguished himself among the greatest swordsmen and charmers of the Napoleonic era. Defender of the ideal of the Enlightenment, he became in Italy a hero of the nationalist movement for the unification of the peninsula. His incredible destiny, his panache, his temerity and his tragic end make him a character that even novelists would not have dared to invent for a 19th century count ...

The son of the Revolution

Joachim Murat born March 25, 1767 in La Bastide-Fortunière (Lot) in a family of innkeepers. His father, a member of the petty bourgeoisie, was several times consul of his municipality and took care of the management of communal property and ecclesiastical benefits. The youngest of a family of eleven children, Joachim was destined for an ecclesiastical career and after a stint at the college of Cahors he entered the seminary of Toulouse from which he was dismissed in 1787 after a quarrel with a classmate. More attracted to the military uniform than the parish priest Joachim enlisted in the 12th Ardennes mounted chasseur regiment then stationed in the city. This change of direction is not to the taste of his family who are struggling to have him fired, in vain. Joachim remains a rider in the company of Chevalier Henry de Carrière. Well in this new world Joachim performs his service in this regiment which becomes the 12th hunter on horseback in Champagne. When the rumors about the events of 1789 reached the region, Joachim was the housekeeper. We do not know why, perhaps for having shown an interest in new ideas, Joachim must leave his regiment and return home.

Back in the Lot, he became a merchant in Saint-Céré where he quickly established himself as a figure in local political life: he frequented clubs and ended up being appointed to represent his canton at the feast of the Federation in Paris on the 14th. July 1791. He returns from the party escorting the flag offered by the municipality of Paris.

With his new prestige, Joachim returned to his former regiment as a private. The following year, in February 1792, he was appointed with two other soldiers from the department to enter the constitutional guard of Louis XVI! But this body is far from meeting its expectations, it openly complains about the anti-patriotism that reigns there and resigns in March. The letter he addressed to the Legislature resulted in the removal of this guard.

Back in the 12th hunter regiment, Joachim again became a housekeeper and then a second lieutenant a few months later. From 1792 to 1793 he served in Champagne and in the Army of the North, he became captain aide-de-camp to General d'Urre then squadron leader.

Bonaparte's saber

On 13 Vendémiaire Year IV (5 October 1795) he was in Paris when the royalist sections marched on the Convention. He was then under the command of a brigadier general named Bonaparte who ordered him to rush to the Tuileries to bring back the forty pieces of artillery from the Plaine des Sablons: " Hurry, and slash if necessary! ". Murat complies with enthusiasm and brings back to the general the tools of his victory, it is the first act of a long collaboration between the two men. Made brigade leader in 1796 he became Bonaparte's aide-de-camp and followed him during the Italian campaign. There, he stood out to Dego and Mondovi and together with Junot obtained the honor of bringing back to Paris the flags taken from the enemy. Appointed brigadier general he returned to Italy where he was found in Genoa, Livorno, on the Adige, in the Tyrol… He was slightly wounded on September 15 as he progressed towards Mantua. When General Bonaparte put an end to the Italian campaign with the Treaty of Compo-Formio, the general had already carved out a solid reputation for himself as a distinguished horseman. In 1797 he was in Rome while the Roman Republic was being proclaimed.

Faithful to Bonaparte, Murat was part of the Egyptian expedition. Although he does not stand out for his taste for scientific discoveries, he is refining his image of a saber in this mythical territory. He is involved in all the great battles: from the landing in Alexandria, to the famous battle of the Pyramids (where he does not play a major role), in Gaza, in front of the sadly famous city of Saint-Jean-D'acre, and especially above all, he covered himself with glory by commanding the vanguard of the army during the battle of Aboukir. In a memorable charge he pushes the Turks back to the sea! The Anglo-Turkish landing plan failed and Bonaparte was delighted to be able to erase the memory of the naval defeat of Aboukir by that of the land victory of the same name. In thanks for this victory Murat was promoted on the battlefield to the rank of major general on July 25, 1799.

Back in France alongside Bonaparte, he played a major role in the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire (9 and 10 November 1799). As the matter turns sour in the Council of Five Hundred, the president who is none other than Lucien Bonaparte calls for the expulsion of the deputies. At the head of a troop of grenadiers the general enters the Council exclaiming " Citizens, you are dissolved! "Then, faced with the agitation of the deputies, he brutally ordered his men" Get them all out there! ". On the side of the deputies it is the rout, they flee by all the exits, by the windows ... Lucien will rally enough to vote the end of the Directory and the advent of the Consulate which sees Bonaparte taking the reins of power.

During the riots of Vendémiaire, in Italy, in Egypt, in Brumaire, he was always at Bonaparte's side and saved him several times. How could the latter have refused him the hand of his sister who fell madly in love with the fiery swordsman? Thus on February 20, 1800 Murat (33 years old) married Caroline Bonaparte (18 years old) and became the son-in-law of the First Consul Napoleon.

During the second Italian campaign, the young husband got back on his horse. As a lieutenant general-in-chief of the reserve army, Napoleon also gave him command of the cavalry. Such a mass of cavalry used together under the orders of Murat seemed to Napoleon I a formidable tactical tool. The general crosses the Grand-Saint-Bernard pass and takes Milan. Then he crosses the Po and joins his brother-in-law at Marengo where he receives a saber of honor. He then returned to Dijon before returning to Italy, which had become his favorite battlefield, to occupy Tuscany and drive the Neapolitans out of the Papal States. He signed a peace with the King of Naples and became commander of the Southern Observation Army in that kingdom. He took the opportunity to seize the island of Elba.

Back in France, peace allows him to relaunch in this environment of local politics. He was appointed president of the electoral college of Lot and became deputy of the legislative body in 1804. He then became governor of Paris. He held this position during the Duke of Enghien case but, passive, he will content himself with signing the order of judgment.

Murat, Marshal of the Empire

With the proclamation of the Empire Murat, present at the coronation, receives all the honors: he becomes Marshal of the Empire, grand admiral, grand prince, grand eagle of the Legion of Honor and leader of the 12th cohort. A key member of the new nobility, he accumulated a collection of paintings in his private mansion at the Elysée.

When war resumed with Austria in 1805 Marshal Murat regained command of the cavalry. He entered Bavaria and marched on Vienna where he entered without resistance. By cunning he manages to make the Austrians believe that an armistice is signed and seizes the bridges over the Danube before they are destroyed. He then tumbles a Russian corps in Moravia before seeking his share of glory under the Austerlitz sun. By an imperial decree of March 30, 1806, he became Grand Duke of Berg and Clèves. He took his title very seriously and hastened to expand his duchy by annexing towns devolved to Prussia, notably the fortress of Wessel. He is also concerned about negotiating with Napoleon a new tariff for exports. He will personally endeavor to keep an eye on the uniforms of the men of his duchy: he brings in Damascus fabric, and chooses the colors (crimson dolman, pelisse color "doe belly" ...).

But for Murat the war is not over, he must quickly attack the Prussians and take part in the battle of Jena where the cavalry takes 14,000 prisoners. Then he chased the Prince of Hohenlohe, who surrendered with his entire army (16,000 men, 60 guns and as many flags) and eventually captured Stettin. But the war does not end with the annihilation of Prussia, remain the Russians who do not let go.

The Prince entered Poland in a very colorful uniform (embroidered with gold thread with wide pants of amaranth color trimmed in gold, yellow leather boots, a hat trimmed with white feathers and a plume of four feathers of drooping ostrich with a heron's egret), he crossed Warsaw where he was acclaimed. He will spend the whole month of January in this city where Poniatowski offers him the saber of Etienne Bathori (Polish king at the end of the 16th century). This nation asks only to be independent, the Prince dreams of taking the lead ...

But the restoration of Poland was not in the plans of his Emperor's brother-in-law, he took to war again in the cold and snow to fight the terrible and bloody Battle of Eylau. The fate of the battle is undecided, when Napoleon decides to engage his cavalry he throws at Murat " Will you let us devoured by his people? ". It doesn't take more than that for the marshal to rush forward with the greatest cavalry charge in the Empire (which inspires Balzac to Colonel Chabert): the enemy center is overthrown and the French army saved. Everyone is amazed that he survives all his charges, as his eccentric outfits make an easily spotted target in the background: in Eylau he charges with a white leotard, red pants, a fur hat trimmed with feathers and a fur coat. Stunned, the Russian army is crushed in Friedland and the Emperor of the French meets the Czar of Russia in Tilsit. During the festivities the Prince will be noticed by the extravagance of his outfits, annoyed Napoleon will order him " Go put on your general's uniform, you look like Franconi (Famous theater actor).

In July 1808 Murat resumed service in the Iberian Peninsula, he was appointed lieutenant general of the Emperor in Spain. He is responsible, among other things, to hold the Spanish strongholds to ensure the rear of Junot's operation in Portugal. He took up his duties without knowing what Napoleon was up to and found himself managing on the spot the consequences of the "ambush" of Bayonne by which Napoleon deposed the King of Spain Charles IV for the benefit of his son Ferdinand VII. The Madrilenians rise up, attack the French soldiers ... The city is in fire and blood, the Mamluks frighten the insurgents as much as they stir up their hatred. Murat only reestablishes order in an outburst of violence and bloody repression. This is the famous episode of Dos et Tres des Mayo immortalized by Goya.

The monarchy of the Bourbons of Spain is tearing itself apart, the throne is up to whoever wants to seize it and it is very likely that at that time the Prince felt that it could be legitimate in this capital that he had just submitted. It did not happen, Spain returned to Joseph Bonaparte, ex-King of Naples. Murat is summoned to choose between this crown of Naples and that of Portugal: he will choose Italy, ground where he has already commanded and which he knows well. He saw with relief the arrival of Savary who took the lead in Spain while awaiting the arrival of Joseph Bonaparte. He can't take it anymore, he can't stand having to command against the national sentiment of a people, he knows moreover that his authority has been called into question since another king was appointed. He fell ill from it, suffering from high fevers, sleeplessness, migraines and vomiting. Before taking possession of his kingdom he will stroll in Paris to take the family waters in Burgundy where he meets his friend Lannes.

King of Naples

Joachim I King of Naples and Sicily is acclaimed in his kingdom. He entered Naples on September 6, 1808 under the triumphal arches of a jubilant city. It must be said that his subjects expected worse when they learned of the arrival of a Frenchman. They saw the arrival of a tall brunette, perfectly in the Mediterranean type, with a great reputation as a swordsman and richly decorated uniforms which correspond perfectly to the Italian spirit. The Emperor's instructions are clear, if Murat is perfectly king before his subjects he is, before Napoleon, only a viceroy, not to say a great prefect ... But he does not understand it that way and goes take to heart to reign over his kingdom. Continuing the work of Joseph, he reformed with all his strength in all areas: creation of a flag and a national army, relaxation of conscription, creation of a polytechnic school, establishment of civil status, promulgation of the Civil Code, fight against robbery, creation of courts of first instance ... He wants to be an heir to the Enlightenment. He also created a marine school because he knew that without this weapon he could never recover Sicily controlled by the English. He also worked to beautify his capital and launched archaeological excavations in Herculaneum, a Roman city destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius. The economic situation is catastrophic, the state in debt, Murat reduces the subsidies from the ministries, rationalizes the collection of taxes and authoritatively reduces the interest on the debt from 5% to 3% (to the chagrin of France) .

Unable to bear the English who taunt him on sight of his capital, he drove them from Capri in October 1808. The English commander was none other than Hudson Lowe, Napoleon's future jailer at Saint Helena.

From Naples, King Joachim I took a dim view of the Austrian alliance and Napoleon's marriage to Marie-Louise in 1810. Everyone knows that the Austrians support the legitimacy of the Bourbons in Naples and themselves have views on Italy. Little by little Murat will therefore promote his own interests by contacting the Italian nationalist movements. To attach himself to them he even ordered on June 14, 1811 that all foreigners with civilian employment must be naturalized. This was not necessarily to please the French, and a furious Napoleon replied by decreeing that the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies being part of the Empire, it follows that all French citizens are citizens of the Two Sicilies.

But the tension between the two men did not prevent Murat from regaining the head of the cavalry in the Russian campaign. The enemy retreated to the Moskva, a terrible and uncertain battle in which the king particularly distinguished himself. His bravery and panache have made him a legend even in the ranks of the Cossacks who particularly admire him. In the middle of a battle he salutes them with his whip. After the victory, the marshal crossed Moscow, overtaking it, but the burning of the city forced the French army to retreat. To silence the unrest arising from the Malet affair and rebuild an army, Napoleon returned to France, entrusting the marshal with command of the army. The latter held his post then eventually ceded command to Eugène de Beauharnais to return to Naples.

Back in his kingdom Murat hastened to initiate talks with Austria and England. However, he had not yet completely turned away from Napoleon's cause and joined him in 1813 to take command of the cavalry. He fights in Dresden but in Leipzig the imperial army is defeated. Therefore he considers that he must act no longer as a Prince of the Empire but as a King and only takes into account the interests of his kingdom. His wife, Caroline, also urges him to go in this direction. On January 11, 1814 he signed peace with Austria, saving his kingdom by betraying Napoleon.

But the respite is short-lived. Barely had Napoleon fallen and sent to Elba Island, Talleyrand argued at the Congress of Vienna that the kingdom of Naples should return to the Bourbons. Murat is worried, his kingdom is under threat. He plans to defend himself in Italy even by relying on nationalist movements that he can easily mount against the Austrians who want to keep their zone of influence on the north of the peninsula. He is also aware of what is happening on the island of Elba, if Napoleon makes his comeback it will be the time to follow him to win or to perish.

When Napoleon landed in Golfe Juan on March 1, 1815, Murat seized the opportunity to realize his dream: to raise and unify all of Italy with the support of the nationalists. On March 18, he declared war on Austria and launched the famous Rimini proclamation: " A cry is heard from the Alps to the Strait of Scylla and that cry is: Independence of Italy! ". From then on he was no longer a simple king placed by the French, he became for Italian historiography a national hero, a herald of the Risorgimento. This explains, among other things, the rehabilitation of the character on the peninsula at the end of the 19th century, when the unification becomes effective, and the presence still today of his statue in Naples.

The campaign led by the king begins with auspiciousness and the Austrians are pushed back to the Po, he liberates Bologna to the cheers of a jubilant crowd. But the counter-offensive was fatal to him: defeated at Tolentino, he was forced to retreat and flee. He embarked and sought to join Gaëte, but the presence of the English fleet forced him to dock in France while the Bourbons reinvested their kingdom of Naples. His wife Caroline, taking refuge in an English ship, hears the crowd cheering the new sovereign Ferdinand IV.

Murat, fallen prince

Back in his native homeland Murat awaits Napoleon's call. The latter is about to go to war and who says war says army, who says army says cavalry, who says cavalry says Murat! But the wait is in vain, Napoleon does not call him and it is Ney who will lead the cavalry charges at Waterloo. Many said that the fate could be different if a distinguished horseman like him had been given the command against the English squares… Affirmation doomed to remain in the domain of uchronia. France in the grip of the allies, Murat embarked for Corsica where he received a warm welcome, soldiers rallied to him.

Chased down in Vescavio by General Verdier, he went to Ajaccio where the National Guards paid him the honors. But his goal is not to lead the resistance in Corsica, he wants above all to take back his kingdom, even with a handful of men: daring is a constant with Murat. On the evening of September 28, 1815, he embarked with 250 men on the flotilla of Barbara, a former privateer whom he had made Neapolitan baron and captain of a frigate. Has the latter plotted the loss of his former sovereign? While Murat wanted to disembark in Trieste, Barbara pretends the need to get some food in order to land in Pizzo where, he says, he still has supporters. Unfortunately, a gust of wind dispersed the flotilla and only two ships, about thirty men, docked with him. Instead of partisans, they find in Pizzo a hostile population by the memory of the ruthless rigor with which Murat had suppressed the brigandage in the region. After some altercations he was taken prisoner and transferred to Fort Pizzo: it is October 8, 1815.

Knowing the fate that awaits him Murat writes a last letter to his wife. He refuses to appear before a court martial for the masquerade of trial he is offered. On this point he was not wrong since when the Court Martial begins the trial the execution order has already arrived from Naples… In the afternoon of October 13, 1815 he learned of his sentence, he had half an hour to recommend his soul to God before being directed to the castle square where the firing squad was waiting. With astonishing simplicity Joachim Murat asked them bluntly " where should I land? ". He refused the chair and the ribbon offered to him. He unbuttoned his jacket to show his chest and ordered his tormentors " Soldiers, respect the face and aim for the heart… Shoot! ". At that moment he collapsed, hit in the chest and in the hand. As he still seemed to be alive, the officer ordered two more shots to be fired. His body is then thrown into a mass grave. But by disposing of the body the Bourbons could not get rid of the legend of the one called "the King of the Braves and the bravest of Kings".

Some biographies

- Jean-Claude Gillet, Murat: 1767-1815, Bernard Giovanangeli Editor, 2008.

- Michel Lacour-Gayet, Joachim and Caroline Murat, Editions Perrin, 1997.

- Jean Tulard, Murat, Editions Fayard, 2009.


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